Where Bin Laden's real cave fortress might be.

Where Bin Laden's real cave fortress might be.

Where Bin Laden's real cave fortress might be.

Military analysis.
Dec. 24 2001 8:22 PM

Another Hole Deal?

Where Osama Bin Laden's real cave fortress might be.

Remember, a few weeks back, when we thought the labyrinthine caves of Tora Bora were, as a Time headline blared, a "Death Trap"? Nearly everybody considered them, as the magazine put it, "virtually impregnable … invisible … and untouchable." (You might also recall Time's omnipresent graphic of the caves.)

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So much for predictions. Although the Marines plan on heading in to double-check, it seems as if al-Qaida has been routed from those Tora Bora caves. Nor does this seem to have been a particularly costly task. Some 40 Afghan anti-Taliban soldiers apparently died in the fighting; there were no American casualties. Hence, although the Western press has had virtually no access to the most fortified of the Tora Bora caves, it seems fair to say at this point that the region's fortifications turned out to be not all that. Doesn't all this refute the whole military and media idea that Osama Bin Laden would be able to hold out underground?

Well, maybe not. Maybe the caves at Tora Bora were only where OBL's grunts got to go to ground. Maybe his sanctum sanctorum is somewhere else. "I bet you Bin Laden is still in Afghanistan," says John Shroder Jr., a University of Nebraska geologist who has such a comprehensive knowledge of Afghanistan's caves that U.S. intelligence asked him to figure out where Bin Laden had filmed the videos he released early in the war. (The town of Khost, in the southeast, he thinks.) "Bin Laden built at least two bunker complexes in Afghanistan. One is in Tora Bora. The other is south of the White Mountains. If you look at where Tora is on a map, you'll see the Pakistan border is just south, and then there's a big indentation in the border called Parachinar. It's a classic smugglers route."

Shroder demurs from naming the exact location where he thinks Bin Laden has gone underground because "the intel guys wanted me to keep it secret." Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc, who interviewed Bin Laden in 1997, has no such compunctions. "It's called Jaji. I've always assumed he was there too," says Bergen. "This place has special significance for him. It's where Bin Laden fought off Soviet special forces in 1987. And in 1989, Bin Laden brought in Caterpillar equipment and started building a complex there. I've even seen photos of tanks being stored there."

What's more, the spot Shroder pegged Bin Laden to based on his cave-based videos, Khost, is right next to Jaji. "I've been trying to get everyone to pay attention to that area, because it's the easiest one to escape and cross the border from," says Shroder, who believes this is a region the United States should now be bombing. Maybe his intel buddies have made the same point, because at the end of this past week, near Khost, U.S. warplanes carried out a lethal airstrike against a vehicle convoy the Pentagon is convinced was carrying Taliban and/or al-Qaida heavies.

Eric Umansky, previously the "Today's Papers" columnist for Slate, is currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.